Absinthe is one of the world’s most misunderstood liquors. Long ago it was blamed for madness, murder and sloth and was banned throughout the Western world for decades. It goes by many names, many tales and has a legendary reputation that few other spirits can compete with. The licorice taste and sinister deep green color is definitely for a more selective palate, but when drinking high-quality absinthe that’s mixed correctly and stored well, this spirit can add a very enjoyable twist to any evening.
Yes, absinthe is safe to drink, and, no, it won’t make you hallucinate. Of course, with the average bottle clocking in at about 130-proof, it’s not exactly a mild liquor, which is important to keep in mind when drinking.
Because there are so many urban legends and misconceptions about absinthe, and because it was banned until recently, we’ve decided to put together a guide to absinthe. In this article we’re going to walk you through:
- The history of absinthe
- How absinthe is used in modern cocktails
- An absinthe drinking guide
- Accessories for drinking absinthe
- The best absinthe brands for your personal bar
Keep reading to learn everything you ever wanted to know about this strange spirit, which has bewitched drinkers for centuries.
Where Does the Name Absinthe Come From?
The name for absinthe comes from Artemisia absinthium or the “grand wormwood” plant. Absinthe is distilled from wormwood, a plant native to Europe, North Africa and Asia. It contains a molecule thuyone” — a neurotoxin and GABA antidote that in high quantities can cause psychoactive effects like seizures, erratic behavior and even death — hence the spirit’s legendary reputation.
Alcohol has well-known psychoactive effects such as euphoria, lowered inhibitions and drowsiness. However, whiskey, beer, wine, vodka and other popular types of alcohol don’t contain wormwood, which puts absinthe in its own category.
The History of Absinthe
Absinthe first became popular in 19th century France, where it developed a reputation for its potentially dangerous side effects. It was charged with causing madness and insanity otherwise known as “absinthism.” As a result, it was deemed much more dangerous than regular alcoholism. It’s rumored that Van Gogh cut off his own ear under the spell of this mysterious green liquid, but like many legends about absinthe, that’s likely an apocryphal story.
This spirit has earned numerous nicknames over the years, including “La Fee Verte,” which translates to The Green Fairy or The Green Lady in French. The name comes from the intoxicating love affair many drinkers had with this liquor, elevating it to the status of an overpowering muse. However, the Green Fairy became the Green Curse once absinthe was outlawed in much of the Western world due to reported hallucinogenic effects that went far beyond standard alcohol.
Where did these rumors come from exactly? And does absinthe really cause hallucinations and madness? Well, the answer is complicated.
Early studies of absinthe focused on the dangerous side effects of concentrated wormwood, which was shown to cause hyperactivity and seizures in animals. In the early 20th century, around the time prohibition was ramping up, absinthe was deemed an especially dangerous elixir. However, the absinthe used in these experiments contained a high ratio of pure wormwood extract — the potentially hallucinogenic ingredient, whereas regular absinthe contains a much smaller diluted dose.
The concerning byproduct of wormwood that has the potential to cause hallucinations and erratic behavior is thujone. It’s possible that the bottles of absinthe tipped back in 19th-century Parisian bars contained up to 260 mg of thujone, a dangerously high dose. However, the absinthe sold today contains no more than 10mg/kg of thujone, which brings absinthe’s potential hallucinatory effects to zero. The alcohol in the absinthe would kill you long before you started experiencing hallucinogenic effects.
Here in the United States, the prohibition-era ban on absinthe continued until 2007, and there are still strict regulations on the sale of this alcoholic drink. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau mandates that any absinthe solid in the U.S. must contain no more than 10mg/kg of thujone. On top of that, absinthe bottles “may not project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean absinthe doesn’t pack one hell of a punch. Most absinthe ranges from 106 to 138 proof, which makes this one of the most powerful liquors known to man. The best absinthe will certainly get you intoxicated, even if it won’t cause you to hallucinate images of green fairies frolicking to and fro above the bar.
What Does Absinthe Taste Like?
Absinthe’s taste is often compared to black licorice, but it has a more complicated flavor profile. Absinthe’s distinctive taste and smell create an overwhelming experience for the palate. You’ll experience strong flavors of anise, licorice and herbal elements like melissa, hyssop, fennel and coriander. It’s spicy, bold, a little bit sweet and bitter as well.
It doesn’t take a lot for this powerful liquor to be noticed in a cocktail. In fact, the defining characteristic of the famous Sazerac cocktail is the glass being washed with absinthe before adding any other ingredient.
How To Use Absinthe In A Cocktail
There are a few different ways to add absinthe to a delicious cocktail.
According to Food Republic, the primary method for enjoying absinthe is adding a bit of water to calm the bold, complex flavors and enjoy a more subtle experience. Three parts water and one part absinthe is usually the recommended mix, similar to the way you might enjoy the best whiskey neat.
An “absinthe wash” is another common way to add this spirit to a cocktail — made famous with the Sazerac cocktail you may find at craft cocktail bars in your area. When preparing this cocktail, you first coat the inside of the glass with an absinthe spray, remove the excess liquid and then add your other ingredients. It’s very similar to the process with vermouth and a dry martini, only with absinthe.
One of the more entertaining ways to enjoy absinthe is with a traditional absinthe fountain, which is one of the more beautiful and European ways to dilute this liquor. Each person gets a glass of absinthe, an absinthe spoon and a sugar cube. You then fill an absinthe fountain with water and place each glass underneath one of the taps. Slowly let the water drip over the sugar cube into the glass until it has dissolved. In the end, you should have about six parts water per one part absinthe.
4-Spout Lady Absinthe Fountain
You can also enjoy absinthe in a variety of mixed cocktails including the Sazerac, Cocktail a la Louisiane and Death in the Afternoon – a cocktail that shares its name with Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the same name.
All Recipes has some fantastic absinthe cocktail recipes, and we’ve included some of our favorites at the bottom of this article.
Essential Absinthe Drinking Accessories
Every absinthe enthusiast or those curious to try should consider a few of the items below. The best absinthe drinking accessories make imbibing this specialized liquor easier and more enjoyable.
Absinthe Stainless Steel Spoon
One of the first things you should own as an absinthe drinker is the spoon necessary for the absinthe fountain concoction. Balance a sugar cube over your glass easily with this stainless steel spoon complete with a decorative, medieval appearance. It’s completely unscented so your drink won’t be affected and the silver color will elevate the appearance of your bar cart.
La Rochere Absinthe Reservoir Glass
Every liquor has its own designated glass — the martini glass, wine glass, champagne flute — this one is reserved for the green fairy. The glasses include a short stem and marking design that indicates how large the pour is. These glasses were designed exclusively for preparing and serving absinthe, and can be bought in packs of a single glass, two and six glasses.
Absinthe Wrapped Sugar Cubes
An essential element of the French absinthe drinking ritual is sugar cubes that slowly dilute off of the absinthe spoons into the cocktail. These are shorter and less pressed that regular sugar cubes so they melt faster and are specifically designed to use with absinthe.
Absinthe Fountain Set Heure Verte
You can also purchase all of the above and then some with this fountain set that includes an absinthe fountain, four absinthe glasses, four absinthe spoons and a large bag of absinthe sugar cubes that work best for the absinthe drinking ritual. Get all of the essential absinthe drinking accessories in one go and be ready to drink like they did way back when it was theoretically hallucinogenic.
Absinthe coasters are made to perfectly fit the bottom of absinthe glasses. Traditionally, they also included the price of the absinthe and doubled as a bill. Recall the historical drinkers of absinthe with these decorative coasters, an exact reproduction of traditional coasters used in 19th century France.
The Drunken Botanist
If you’re interested in learning more about liquors and the plants they come from, this record is a great reference to start with. Author Amy Stewart explores the links between botany, gardening and booze and makes the process exciting to investigate. She explores the obscure, extraordinary and sometimes downright dangerous plants we use for our cocktail ingredients and how each one has contributed to the global world of mixology as a whole.
Best Absinthe Brands
If you’re looking to dip your toe in this green lagoon, then here are some of our favorite absinthe brands. Please note that ordering alcohol online can be a little tricky, and some of these products will vary in availability depending on where you live.
Remember: even the best absinthe won’t result in wormwood-inspired madness, but it will get you very intoxicated, so please enjoy this drink responsibly.
This absinthe company was founded in 1805 in Paris, France and is one of the original great spirits of the world. The brand’s popularity made absinthe a staple in French drinking culture in the 1800s. It was relaunched in 2001 after the world recognized absinthe as safe to drink and has maintained its superior quality and taste. It’s got an ABV of 68%.
St. George Absinthe Verte
This absinthe is distilled in California by one of the leading craft distillers in modern absinthe making. It’s on the spicier end of absinthe mixes and has soft herbal hints of basil on the finish. This was the first legal American absinthe released after the ban was lifted in 2007 and boast no gimmicks and no artificial ingredients — just real, high-quality absinthe.
Vieux Carré Absinthe
It’s got a French name so it must be legit, right? Yes. This absinthe brand is named after Louisiana’s French Quarter — a popular destination for the liquor’s consumption. It has flavors of spearmint, génépi, star anise and, of course, wormwood.
Leopold Brothers Absinthe Verte
These brothers use traditional 19th-century techniques to make their absinthe with a distilled grape base, anise, fennel and wormwood. They’ve mastered the signature green color through the use of lemon balm and hyssop that’s steeped into the mix after distilling. This 130-proof absinthe is hard to find, so enjoy a bottle while you can!
Kübler Original Absinthe
If you’ve never tried absinthe before, then this small bottle from Kübler is the best absinthe brand to start off with. Rather than a full-size bottle, this absinthe comes in a small 375ML bottle that’s ideal for beginners. Plus, at 53% ABV, it’s much milder than higher-proof absinthes. Kübler Original is made from an original family recipe dating to 1863 and contains nine botanicals for a boldly traditional taste.
While mixing absinthe with water may be the most traditional way to drink this spirit, modern mixologists serve up a number of delicious absinthe cocktails. Keep reading for some of the best absinthe cocktails.
One of America’s first cocktail and still one of the greats. This cocktail is traditionally made with absinthe, a sugar cube, a lemon peel twist, rye whiskey and bitters. A tiny amount of absinthe is sprayed on the glass, and the rest of the ingredients are mixed over ice for a deliciously potent drink.
Cocktail a La Louisiane
This cocktail is named after the once-popular hotel and Creole restaurant in Louisiana’s French Quarter. This cocktail is a newer twist on the popular Sazerac cocktail. In this drink, we keep the rye whiskey, absinthe and bitters but trade the sugar cube for a maraschino cherry. Sweet vermouth and Benedictine also set this drink apart from the classic Sazerac cocktail.
Death in the Afternoon
This cocktail shares its name with Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel and homage to Spanish bullfighting. Needless to say, you should probably enjoy some Hemingway whilst you sip on this particular cocktail. It’s made with very few ingredients that any serious writer would probably have sitting around. Mix them together and channel your inner tortured creative.
Unlike the cocktails above, this absinthe cocktail only has two ingredients. Per All Recipes, simply combine 1.5 parts absinthe with 5 parts sparkling wine. Serve in a champagne glass and enjoy.